How Taiwan Got Same-Sex Marriage With the Help of Ballot Initiatives

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

This year, Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages.

How? The answer is a story that involves direct democracy, and might be familiar to Californians.

In 2017, Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled that equal rights guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry. That ruling gave the legislature two years to enact laws to make it so.

But Taiwan revamped its referendum law to make it easier to qualify initiatives and referenda for the ballot in 2018. And LGBT rights soon became the subject of several competing initiative campaigns. Three measures made the November 18 ballot regarding same-sex marriage.

One measure barred same-sex marriage. Another barred teaching in the schools about same-sex issues, including marriage. And a third measure asked voters to approve a “different process” that would protect same-sex unions but not call them marriage.

All three measures won. But the results, under Taiwan law, were advisory. The Legislative Yuan could go its own way. And so it did. This spring, the legislature formally approved same-sex marriage, citing the court decision and the vote for the measure to protect same-sex unions. Of course, the ban on teaching about same-sex marriage remains in effect. You can marry, but just not talk about it in the schools.

That series of events recalls California, where the State Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, only to have the voters cast ballots to ban it, only to have courts legalize it again, with the support of elected officials.

Voters didn’t affirm same-sex marriage. But the vote advanced the debate, and convinced elected officials to act.

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